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Putting a value on companion animals

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ONE only has to look at the wide range of products and services on display in the commercial exhibition at, say, the London Vet Show or the BSAVA Congress to see that meeting the needs of companion animals and their owners makes a substantial contribution to the economy. However, this forms only part of the picture, as a report published this month makes clear.

The report – ‘Companion Animal Economics: The Economic Impact of Companion Animals in the UK’1 – examines both the direct and indirect benefits and costs of companion animals to society, in an attempt to assess their economic impact overall. The aim, the authors explain, is not to reduce the discussion to a simplistic cost:benefit ratio, but to illustrate the ‘myriad of ways in which companion animals contribute to our society in the UK, as well as some of the costs they bring’. It has been produced by researchers at the University of Lincoln and at the assistance dogs' charity Dogs for Good, with support from the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. Using information obtained from various sources, and focusing specifically on cats and dogs, it draws attention to gaps in current knowledge and areas where more research is needed. By highlighting the complex routes by which pets have an economic impact on society, it aims to ‘dispel the myth that pets are a luxury and to increase awareness of the social, economic and health value of pets to society so that better informed debate and decisions can be made for the benefit of people and pets’.

The report was inspired by a report called ‘Companion Animals in Society’ produced by the Council for Science in Society in 19882 and aims to extend and update the 1988 report's assessment of the value that companion animals bring to society. Given all the changes in the pet care industry over the past 30 years and, indeed, in the nature of the relationship between people and their pets, it is surprising to learn from the new report that relatively little information on the economic value of pets has been published since 1988. This can only support the authors' contention that more work is needed in this area.

Providing what it describes as a preliminary examination of the scope and extent of the economic value of companion animals in the UK, the report considers, among other things, the economic impact of the pet care industry, the reported benefits of companion animal ownership to human health and wellbeing, and the value of assistance dogs in various roles. In doing so, it makes the point that the ‘role in society’ and ‘social value’ of companion animals are not fixed but change with time and according to the situation. ‘Indeed,’ it points out, ‘there has seemingly been a shift from objectification to subjectification of companion animals within society in recent years; they are seen less as chattels or possessions and more as individuals in their own right, and as members of the family. This might reflect a shift in our emotional bond with them and our perceptions as a consequence.’

It also notes that the economic value of companion animals is reported to be growing annually, despite the current economic downturn. ‘There is increased availability of ever more products and services for companion animals, but also,’ it says, ‘a greater need for the psychological and physical benefits they can bring during times of hardship.’

Some of the benefits and costs of pet ownership are easier to measure than others, and there are a number of instances in the report where efforts to do this are hampered by a lack of data. Nevertheless, the report contains some fairly arresting statistics. For example, discussing the possible benefits of pet ownership to human health, it estimates, on the basis that pet owners visit their GPs less often than people who don't have pets, that pet ownership in the UK could be saving the National Health Service £2.45 billion per year. It compares this with a reported figure of £3 million per year cost to the NHS for the treatment of injuries resulting from dog bites, albeit acknowledging that this is likely to be a significant underestimate and suggesting that a figure of £10 million per year might be more appropriate.

Noting that there have been significant advances in veterinary healthcare since the ‘Companion Animals in Society’ report in 1988, it reports that the turnover of the veterinary market in the UK was estimated at £3 billion in 2015, with 3621 businesses and more than 51,000 people employed. It reports that, according to the Association of British Insurers, more than £600 million was paid in insurance claims in 2015, or £1.65 million per day. It also draws attention to significant changes in the pet retail industry over the past 30 years, with a decline in the number of independent pet shops and an increase in the number of pet superstores and retailers offering products online, and cites various figures illustrating the size of the pet market in the UK today.

The report does a good job in using available information to highlight the social, economic and health value of companion animals to the UK, while also highlighting just how much information is missing. Given the significance of the sector, the dearth of information is surprising, and the report makes a good case in arguing that the Government should recognise and take more interest in the contribution it makes to society. Care of companion animals is a serious business, and it's time it got the attention it deserves.

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